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Time for Action on Pollution

April 28, 1985

For the last several weeks Orange County has been assaulted by chemical spills, storage tank leaks and disclosures that remind residents of old pollution problems that remain uncorrected.

In a hearing last month on the pollution of Upper Newport Bay, it was disclosed that the bay and harbor may be polluted with high levels of cancer-causing chemicals such as DDT, the use of which was banned nationally in 1972, and PCBs. Ailing or dead dolphins--they eat the same fish as humans--and sea lions that have washed ashore on Orange County beaches over the last two years show "the highest levels consistently of DDT and PCBs in them of any mammals in the world today."

Testimony also drew a picture of Newport Bay as the receptacle for the dumping of human waste, silt runoff from farms and construction sites and possibly toxic chemicals.

It is disturbing enough to know that the bay is dangerously polluted. What is even more unnerving, however, is that experts still haven't been able to determine the extent or the source of the chemical and bacterial contamination. On the plus side are efforts to clean up the bay, and a proposal to spend $2.7 million to help do that is included in the state budget. But the county also needs a long-range solution that will find and cut off the source of the pollution.

That job wasn't made much easier when two chemical spills on April 7 formed a 4 1/2-mile-long green-colored stream in an Irvine drainage channel and the San Diego Creek. Some of the spill, later identified as an aircraft cleaning solvent from the Marine Corps helicopter station in Tustin, flowed into Upper Newport Bay. Another chemical spill the following week in the same creek was stopped before reaching the bay.

Those episodes reminded environmental officials that Marines at the Tustin base still have not cleaned up a contaminated four-acre area saturated with jet fuel that was discovered more than two years ago.

There is no evidence that the contamination has reached the underground water supply or harmed wildlife, but state and local officials, quite properly, have noted its potential health hazard and the slow response of the Marines to correct the problem.

Then came a notice from the state Department of Health Services warning that fish caught in and around Santa Monica and San Pedro bays might be dangerously contaminated by toxic chemicals, such as DDT. The impact of that warning didn't stop at the Los Angeles County line.

The concern of Orange County residents over the high DDT levels in the dolphins washed up along the coastline has shown up in the drop in fish sales reported in markets and restaurants, despite medical pronouncements from Los Angeles officials that most fish should be safe.

With fish caught in parts of Long Beach Harbor included on the "don't eat" list, it would be appropriate to post the same warning signs used in Los Angeles in fishing areas on the north Orange County coastline.

Finally, there was the recent release of a tri-county water quality report disclosing that in Orange County alone more than 172,000 gallons of gasoline have been reported lost because of leaks in underground storage tanks. And that total could be greatly underestimated because it doesn't include some tank leaks still being investigated. Or others that may be discovered in the more than 5,200 underground tanks in the county containing gasoline acids, diesel fuel and solvents when new state inspection and monitoring requirements become law July 1.

Government has been tightening regulations, and pollution in Orange County is still of manageable proportions. But if any good is to come of recent spills and discoveries, it will take an increased public awareness of the dangers to the Orange County environment. And a new sense of urgency and resolve to detect those dangers, hold accountable those responsible and provide residents with increased protection against the growing chemical pollution that threatens their well-being.

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